Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

U-M researchers highlight progress at
World Stem Cell Summit

Researchers from around the world, including 16 from U-M, are detailing progress being made in stem cell science at the World Stem Cell Summit in Detroit this week.

Presentations on Monday highlighted U-M’s success in developing the state’s first human embryonic stem cell line and a groundbreaking amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) clinical trial being overseen by neurologist Dr. Eva Feldman.

  Dr. Eva Feldman addresses the World Stem Cell Summit as A.Alfred Taubman, a major donor to stem cell research, looks on. (Photo by Scot Soderberg, Photo Services)

Feldman, director of the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, spoke about the first FDA-approved clinical trial of stem cell transplants for ALS, the neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

She is overseeing the project as a consultant to Neuralstem Inc., the trial’s sponsor. The work is being conducted at Emory University in Atlanta. The Phase I trial involves injecting neural stem cells directly into the spinal cords of ALS patients. The trial is designed to determine the safety and feasibility of this approach.

To date, six ALS patients have received injections. Feldman said the seventh patient is scheduled to undergo the treatment Oct. 20. Feldman and members of her research team will speak in greater detail about the trial at a summit session Tuesday.

“We are really on the threshold of discovery in terms of stem cells and their potential. They are clearly going to help us understand disease,” said Feldman, director of the Program for Neurology Research and Discovery and the Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology. “And as a neurologist, I’m particularly interested in stem cells’ potential to help a damaged neural system regenerate.”

Sean Morrison, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology, delivered the science keynote address and spoke about his lab’s work relating to the cancer stem cell model, one of the most promising new ideas about the causes of cancer.

The model states that a small handful of rogue stem cells drive the formation and growth of malignant tumors in many cancers. Proponents of the idea have been pursuing new treatments that target these rare stem cells, instead of trying to kill every cancer cell in a patient’s body.

But in a series of experiments involving human melanoma cells transplanted into mice, Morrison’s team found that tumor-forming cells weren’t rare at all. They’re quite common in melanoma, which is a form of skin cancer, but standard laboratory tests failed to detect them. After updating and improving the laboratory tests used to detect aberrant cells, Morrison’s team found many more tumor-causing melanoma cells.

“In melanoma, it looks like every cell is bad, and we need to kill all of them,” Morrison said Monday. “In a high percentage of cases, even single melanoma cells can form tumors.”

Morrison, Henry Sewall Professor in Medicine and professor of internal medicine and cell and developmental biology, stressed that his team’s findings do not invalidate the cancer stem-cell model. However, the model may not apply to all types of cancer, he said.

Before the scientific presentations began, Gov. Jennifer Granholm spoke to the more than 800 summit attendees.

“The U.S. stem cell market is expected to grow from $100 million in 2010 to $8 billion in 2016, and we want to get an oversized piece of that market,” Granholm said. “This requires partnerships. Clearly, government has to be a partner and the universities have to be a major part of that.”

The summit is co-sponsored by the University Research Corridor, an alliance of U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University focused on leveraging the research universities’ assets to transform, strengthen and diversify the state’s economy. The event was organized by the non-profit Genetics Policy Institute.

While Michigan is best known for autos and Motown, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the summit would focus attention on our “amazing collection of research universities and companies that make our region a hub of biomedical research.”

After Michigan voters approved a 2008 constitutional amendment that eased restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research, “almost overnight Michigan was transformed from one of the most difficult states to a national leader for stem cell research,” Levin told the attendees.

MSU President Lou Anna Simon said the growing success of the URC will become clearer when the URC releases its next annual benchmarking report later this fall, but added, “As globally oriented, mission-oriented organizations, we are seeing life sciences become one of the state’s fastest growing industries.”

“It is an exciting time for Michigan as we look more and more to the life sciences as an economic engine,” said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, detailing how each URC university brings together unique strengths and leadership as well as its own partners. “There is tremendous synergy and strength in these partnerships, which amplify the opportunities for faculty and students to pursue new knowledge and develop cures and solutions to the pressing problems of our time. We are pleased to carry out this work for the public good.” 

Allan Gilmour, interim president of WSU, told the attendees, “I’m delighted to join my University Research Corridor colleagues in welcoming you to our hometown as we show how stem cell research is changing the world in ways we can’t imagine yet.

“Changing the world starts with imagination, but it doesn’t end there. … To a layman like me, stem cell research is a radical idea, like going to the moon was. … Remember those words, ‘It’s never been done,’ because the whole world is waiting to see what you will do that has never been done before.”

Michigan has 770,000 people who could potentially benefit from cures being worked on by stem cell scientists, Granholm said, adding, “Now we are one of just three states that have this enshrined in the constitution so in one vote we went from the ridiculous to the sublime.”

Bernie Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute and founder of the annual summit, said the event brings together scientists, policymakers, business people and patients “so we can eliminate the gaps between them and create bridges of understanding.”

A. Alfred Taubman, a major philanthropic supporter of stem cell research who is being honored for his contributions, said, “The fact we are holding a stem cell summit in Michigan is a miracle in itself. Just two years ago, our scientists couldn’t make new stem cell lines. Well, they could — but they would be committing a crime that could land them in jail for 10 years and cost them $10 million.”

Michigan is rarely given enough credit for for its “historic contributions to the life sciences and the pharmaceutical industry,” Taubman said. But voters embraced the potential of stem cells with the 2008 state constitutional amendment, as did both gubernatorial nominees in this year’s election, he said.

“The moment we turn embryonic stem cell research into an effective treatment for human disease, the debate will be over,” he said.

U-M researchers announced Sunday that they’ve created the state’s first human embryonic stem cell line, a feat that is the culmination of years of planning. Additional U-M cell lines will be established to study disease mechanisms and to search for innovative new treatments.